Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, a week after lasting just five innings (and giving up seven runs) against the Diamondbacks in Arizona, Kyle Hendricks threw perhaps the finest game of his six-year career. Nine innings. No runs. Four hits. Eighty-one pitches, not one of them flying faster than 90 miles per hour and only 18 of them landing, unchallenged, outside of the strike zone. If Noah Syndergaard’s complete-game, 10-K, no-run performance against the Reds on Thursday — during which he hit the home run that won the game 1-0 — was the logical end of 2019’s high-strikeout, high-velocity environment, then Hendricks’ was its precise opposite: the least 2019 game of the year. That these two starts could come on consecutive days is why we love baseball; it’s a beautiful game.
If you are willing to accept a contextual definition of “struggled,” then Hendricks probably struggled most in the first inning (the other candidate is the fourth, about which I’ll say more later). He went 2-1 on the always-dangerous Matt Carpenter to lead off the game, then retired the Cardinal star on the fifth pitch of the sequence with a sinking fastball right down the middle. Nobody knew it at the time, but Hendricks had already thrown more than six percent of the pitches he’d throw in the entire game. It took him just five more pitches to close out the first inning — four to Paul Goldschmidt and one to Paul DeJong — and Hendricks was on his way.
The DeJong plate appearance was perhaps the most critical of the entire game for what it told Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras about how the Cardinals would approach him on Friday. When Hendricks has struggled this year, it’s been when he’s forced into the strike zone late in counts when hitters know he’s got to be there. Eight-eight miles an hour, in that situation, is often just too easy for big-league hitters to hit. Against DeJong, though, Hendricks saw what would become a trend for the Cardinals throughout the game: A willingness to be aggressive early in the count. Hendricks was perfectly willing to play into it. After starting the first two hitters with at least two balls before first getting into the zone, Hendricks started 21 of the next 27 with a pitch in the zone.
The Cardinals obliged. After Carpenter, the next 24 batters — running all the way to the eighth inning — put the ball in play, and all but three were retired. Not many pitchers with Hendricks’ velocity could get away with that approach, of course. Hendricks can take the risk that the occasional mistake will turn into a home run because he’s been able to make his pitches look similar enough through the first two-thirds or so of their path to the plate that they’re almost impossible for hitters to distinguish between in time to hit. Baseball Prospectus, which attempts to quantify this skill, suggests that Hendricks is extremely effective at “tunneling” his pitches in this way. One look at the GIF below will confirm that data in spades:
Kyle Hendricks, 86mph Fastball (Called Strike) and 78mph Changeup (Swinging Strike), Overlay. pic.twitter.com/jDjy3onFTP
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 3, 2019
Hendricks can be effective when hitters aren’t quite as aggressive against him, of course — his command is more than good enough for that — but success in those games typically means high pitch counts, because he has to be careful to stay on the corners of the zone in the later pitches of each sequence against a hitter for fear that they’ll guess right (or, worse, actually identify the pitches out of his hand) and crush his offering. Hendricks’s starts this year have lasted four and a third, four, five, seven, five, and now nine innings. In all but one of those previous starts — the four innings against the Brewers on April 7, where he made just 75 pitches — Hendricks threw more pitches than he did on Friday (81). In all but one of those previous starts — the April 19 start at home against Arizona — Hendricks struck out at least as many batters as he did on Friday (three). Kyle Hendricks is at his best when he’s not striking that many batters out. Few pitch like that any more.
I promised we’d get to the fourth inning, and now we will, because it was the only inning in which the Cardinals briefly looked as if they might dial down on the aggression against Hendricks. Again, the key man is DeJong. After retiring Goldschmidt on a single pitch to start the frame, Hendricks faced DeJong for the second time and promptly took the same approach that had served him so well in the first: fastballs near the bottom of the zone. This time, DeJong took the first two for strikes, then let Hendricks throw four more pitches — only one of which he offered at — to run the count full. The final pitch of the sequence was intended for the outside corner but caught just a little bit too much of the plate. DeJong hit it hard to left, and it took a sharp play from Javier Báez to complete the putout. In the next plate appearance, Marcell Ozuna challenged Hendricks in a different way, fouling off pitch after pitch in the strike zone before finally poking a line drive to right field that took a sliding stop from Ben Zobrist to track down. That was the only inning in which Hendricks threw more than four balls.
One wonders, in seeing that inning, why the Cardinals didn’t adjust and take a more patient approach against Hendricks mid-game when they saw that their aggressive approach wasn’t working. Doing so might, at the very least, have gotten Hendricks to 100 pitches earlier in the game and therefore probably out sooner. Partially, I think, it’s that they were seeing some pretty decent contact against the pitches they did connect with and were simply hoping that a few of those balls would get down in sequence and turn into runs. The Cardinals had four hits on the day, after all, and one crucial caught stealing that collapsed a rally (Harrison Bader, in the sixth), and Hendricks himself credited the defense behind him for turning in some nice plays, which kept his pitch count down and extended his outing. It’s not wholly unreasonable for the Cardinals to have hoped that, at some point, their luck would turn. But it didn’t.
The other part of the Cardinals’ intransigence has to do, I think, with a certain level of incredulity that a pitcher with this kind of stuff can succeed in today’s game. Hendricks’ pitches feel like they should be easy to hit — and perhaps they are, in isolation, for your average big-leaguer (I, of course, would weep if someone threw something at me at eighty-eight miles an hour). But Hendricks’s pitches aren’t thrown in isolation, and six years into his big-league career, I think we can safely say that his run of success isn’t a fluke or something that’s likely to end any time soon. Hendricks will never be a pitcher who can consistently go deep into games (last year, in a perfectly solid season overall, he went past the seventh in just 6 of 33 opportunities). But on days when hitters are willing to lean into their aggression and his defense makes plays behind him, he can do some astonishing things. On Friday, that turned into the most efficient complete-game shutout since Jon Lieber’s 78-pitch effort back in 2001. Baseball is a beautiful game.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.